What is flexible masculinity and how can it aid wellbeing?
It’s time to take down toxic masculinity for good; here we explore a healthier, more flexible alternative that can aid coping and wellbeing
The winds of social change have blown in a plethora of views on what masculinity should look like in modern society. These different perspectives can cause confusion; should I be stoic or emotionally expressive, the drill sergeant or the shoulder to cry on? This lack of clarity can cause confusion when coping with one’s own psychological distress. What coping responses will be acceptable in the eyes of others? Within this vacuum, some may be persuaded by ‘toxic’ forms of masculinity that typically advocate suppression of emotion, and maintaining a ‘tough guy’ persona.
Toxic masculinities are totally inflexible, with no tolerance for script deviations. But toxic masculinities are also largely unobtainable. Beyond Hollywood, you are very unlikely to see a guy get beaten up, and still manage to pin down the criminal mastermind, deliver a legendary one-liner, then make out with the best-looking woman in town.
Most men might attempt to score ‘man points’ in a less cinematic way, usually through minimisation, avoidance, and denial of psychological difficulties. This restricted use of coping strategies is bad for wellbeing. However, men caught in a narrowly defined definition of masculinity are discouraged from being flexible in their coping efforts. A ‘man-up’ strategy invariably increases the chances of becoming a man-down.
A flexible alternative
Instead of debating what constitutes the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ set of masculinity characteristics, men (and society as a whole) may benefit from a more flexible approach. Flexible masculinity moves away from this unhelpful debate by encouraging men to identify valued characteristics (in relation to their gender/masculine identity), and then define them in broad terms. This can involve a reinterpretation of existing definitions – ‘independence’ can move from ‘not seeking help from anyone’ to ‘relying on one’s own skills where possible and working with others when needed to upskill in relevant coping strategies’.
It is not about telling men that they are wrong in their existing definitions, but instead widening perspectives to encourage more flexible coping. Such flexibility is important because psychological flexibility leads to enhanced wellbeing, as reported in Clinical Psychology Review. Conversely, a study in the American Journal of Men’s Health suggests staunch adherence to a rigid brand of toxic masculinity can lead to negative psychological outcomes.
The identification of valued qualities can be achieved in many ways. One method is to complete a values card-sorting exercise, where you organise a series of values to clarify those most important to your life (a Google search will produce a list of templates). Another method is to think about what makes a ‘good’ versus ‘real man’ (as suggested by sociologist Michael Kimmel). This exercise can help you to distinguish unhelpful or less important attributes from more meaningful values. Alternatively, the ‘gravestone’ exercise can be used to consider how you would most want to be remembered by others.
The relationship with emotional expression
There is an understandable tendency to suppress painful emotional experiences, no matter who you are. Men drawn in by toxic masculinities may be further driven to minimise these emotions to live up to restricted definitions of key attributes like strength, resilience, and self-control. These attempts to mute unpleasant feelings are sometimes referred to as ‘experiential avoidance’. A more flexible interpretation would view these emotions as uncomfortable but important signals from the brain, which convey information about our psychological state, and only through paying attention can we understand and effectively manage them. Strength and resilience in this context might be reinterpreted as facing up to unpleasant experiences, and learning new coping strategies.
Applying flexibility to difficult emotions involves both a mindset change, and techniques to investigate feelings. Mindfulness is an increasingly popular activity, where the intention is to notice our internal states in an inquisitive, non-judgemental way. Instead of living by the belief that difficult emotions are to be suppressed, we can study the way they are experienced in the body. We can also learn about these emotions by describing their components, namely physical/bodily sensations (e.g. muscle tightness), thoughts (‘I can’t cope’), and behaviour (leaving an anxiety-provoking situation). Anything we can do to objectively focus on, and examine, difficult emotions has the potential to move away from avoidance, and towards increased flexibility.
Flexibility and difficult thoughts
We can respond to emotional avoidance urges by ‘normalising’ uncomfortable feelings, and reminding ourselves they are an unavoidable part of life. This illustrates the use of flexible thinking to promote our wellbeing.
Broadening and re-interpreting valued masculine characteristics is another core means by which we can utilise flexible masculinity.
By questioning and challenging long-held assumptions about how men ‘should’ behave, we can come off autopilot and start to explore the usefulness of existing worldviews. I recently worked with a client who sought help for anger management. He had been interpreting anger as failed self-control, and responded by attempting to suppress this emotion. He worked to redefine self-control as ‘effective responses to difficult emotions’ (rather than elimination of these emotions) and was able to approach anger in a more helpful way.
You can apply this technique to any number of masculine traits characterised by a narrow, inflexible definition (e.g. courage, assertiveness, competitiveness). Flexible masculinity can also be pursued via metaphors that support pro-wellbeing thinking: “Put on your own oxygen mask first by seeking help when needed,” or “Changing gear to suit the terrain.”
Specific thoughts that encourage toxic masculinity (“I must ignore my distress to be a real man”) can be directly challenged in a variety of ways. Here are a few questions you could ask yourself when inflexible thoughts arise:
How helpful is this thought in promoting flexible masculinity and positive coping? If the answer is “not helpful”, then consider what might constitute a more helpful thought (e.g. ‘I can be a role model by understanding and positively managing distress’).
What is the evidence that this thought is accurate? If, on balance, the thought appears to be inaccurate, you can brainstorm more flexible alternatives – such as ‘Being a man involves far more than how I handle distress.’
What are the wellbeing pros and cons of buying into this thought? This is a form of cost-benefit analysis where you can look at the wellbeing value a thought provides.
What would a good man (rather than a ‘real’ man) say in response to this thought? This question encourages you to take a different perspective on thinking that is better aligned with your own values.
Flexible masculinity is of limited use if applied only to our thoughts. Flexibility should also be developed through behaviour. One straightforward technique is to look for examples of different forms of masculinity, taking note of instances where men directly go against the grain of toxic masculinity and act flexibly.
Researchers have reported males of different ages and social circumstances who have broken free from rigidly prescribed masculinities – ranging from American teenagers to older adult Portuguese men. Once identified, you can consider how you can exhibit key values in different ways. You can experiment with small behaviour changes initially to manage (understandable) anxiety that can arise when changing how you act (e.g. ask a distressed person to describe their emotions rather than saying “you’ll be fine”).
Go back to your description of a ‘good’ man as an alternative approach. How can you express this form of masculinity and be a positive role model to others?
We need to abandon the search for a ‘correct’ masculinity template. Men have different values, and this should be represented in the idea that multiple masculinities exist in society. However, some forms of masculinity are toxic and restrict efforts to cope with psychological distress. Flexible masculinity can be a positive response to restrictive, toxic brands of masculinity which harm our wellbeing. Rather than getting tied up by a narrow view of how you should be, you can focus on additional ways you can live life and respond to challenges. Identifying values can be a launching pad for flexible masculinity which, in turn, may lead to a better life for yourself and those you care about.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss identity and wellbeing visit counselling-directory.org.uk